Step by Step
Incremental improvements are better than comprehensive reforms.


What are Republicans for?

For the Democratic senators who kept asking this question during the health-care debate, the only answer was for Mitch McConnell to roll a wheelbarrow onto the Senate floor with an alternative 2,700-page, comprehensive Republican health-care bill. Or a 1,200-page Republican climate-change bill. Or a 900-page Republican immigration bill. But people expecting that kind of an answer will be waiting a long time.

On health care, clean energy, debt reduction, and immigration, Republicans have been offering an alternative to thousand-page bills: going step-by-step in the right direction to solve problems in a way that re-earns the trust of the American people.

The Democrats’ comprehensive immigration, climate-change, and health-care bills have been well-intended, but the first two collapsed under their own weight, and health care, if it doesn’t do the same, will be a historic mistake for the country and a political kamikaze mission for Democrats.

What has united most Republicans against these three bills has been not only ideology, but also that they were comprehensive. As George Will might write: The. Congress. Does. Not. Do. Comprehensive. Well.

Two recent articles help explain the difference between the Democratic comprehensive approach and the Republican step-by-step approach.

The first, which appeared in the new journal National Affairs and was written by William Schambra of the Hudson Institute, explains the “sheer ambition” of President Obama’s legislative agenda as the approach of a “policy president.” Schambra says that the president and most of his advisers have been trained at elite universities to govern by launching “a host of enormous initiatives all at once . . . formulating comprehensive policies aimed at giving large social systems — and indeed society itself — more rational and coherent forms and functions.”

This is akin to taking big bites from several apples and trying to swallow them all at once. In addition, according to Schambra, the most prominent organizational feature of the Obama administration is its reliance on “czars” — more than the Romanovs, said one blogger — to manage broad areas of policy. In this view, systemic problems of health care, energy, education, and environment can’t be solved in pieces.

Analyzing Schambra’s article, David Broder wrote in the Washington Post, “Historically that approach has not worked. The progressives failed to gain more than a brief ascendancy and the Carter and Clinton presidencies were marked by striking policy failures.” The reason for these failures, as Broder paraphrased Schambra, is that “this highly rational comprehensive approach fits uncomfortably with the Constitution, which apportions power among so many different players.” Broder adds, “Democracy and representative government are a lot messier than the progressives and their heirs, including Obama, want to admit.”

Political scientist James Q. Wilson, in a memorial essay honoring Irving Kristol in the Wall Street Journal, says that the law of unintended consequences is what causes the failure of such comprehensive legislative schemes. Explains Wilson, “Launch a big project and you will almost surely discover that you have created many things you did not intend to create.” Wilson also writes that neoconservatism as Kristol originally thought of it in the 1960s was not an organized ideology or even necessarily conservative, but “a way of thinking about politics rather than a set of principles and rules. . . . It would have been better if we had been called policy skeptics,” he says.

The law of unintended consequences means that when the only choices are the recent immigration, climate-change, and health-care bills, being a member of the party of “no” is a more responsible choice than being a member of the party of “yes we can.”

It is arrogant to imagine that 100 senators are wise enough to reform comprehensively a health-care system that constitutes 17 percent of the world’s largest economy and affects 300 million Americans of disparate backgrounds and circumstances. How can we be sure, for example, that one unintended consequence of spending $2.5 trillion more for health care won’t be higher costs and more debt? Won’t new taxes also be passed along to consumers, raising premiums and discouraging job growth? Won’t charging insolvent states $25 billion for a Medicaid expansion raise state taxes and college tuitions? (Ask any governor.)